The Farrelly brothers find the success formula -- ''There's Something About Mary'' hits where ''Dumb and Dumber'' and ''Kingpin'' missed

By Ty Burr
Updated February 05, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The Farrelly brothers find the success formula

”We like the guys who know a little less than anyone,” Peter Farrelly has said about the geek heroes of the films he makes with brother Bobby. Apparently, so do audiences: There’s Something About Mary, in which Ben Stiller overcomes a now legendary adolescent zipper incident and his own endearing wimpiness to win the heart of dream girl Cameron Diaz, was the runaway smash of last summer, grossing millions in every sense of the phrase. So how come this movie hit the zeitgeist bull’s-eye? Why was their first effort, the 1994 box office hit Dumb and Dumber, ultimately a triumph only within the context of Jim Carrey idiot-boy comedies? How come their second film, 1996’s Kingpin, was overlooked entirely?

Looking at all three on video makes for a nice little film festival: Call it the History of Bodily Fluids in Modern Farce. But it also shows how two guys from Rhode Island could (after 15 unproduced screenplays and an unsuccessful attempt to market a circular beach towel) refine a formula derived from that holy trinity of lowbrow comedy, Animal House, Stripes, and Caddyshack, and make it appeal to everybody. Especially, and oddly, women.

The female sex does figure into Dumb and Dumber — but mostly as the object of distant worship or abject terror. The two title cretins, Lloyd (Carrey) and Harry (Jeff Daniels), both pine for a gal named Mary (Lauren Holly), but when Harry actually gets to romp with her in Aspen, he ends up shoving her face into a snowbank. That’s a tip-off as to why the movie was never embraced by ”grown-up” audiences or media the way Mary has been: Unapologetically reveling in infantilism, it never becomes more than a cartoon. A paralyzingly funny cartoon, from time to time — Daniels’ gut-busting bathroom nightmare is, for my money, funnier than the similar setup that kicks off Mary. But Holly’s too remote and Carrey’s too manic for Dumber to turn into something larger. Not that it wants to: Essentially, the Farrellys are thinking Laurel and Hardy for the post-SNL audience (with Mike Starr doing a nice Edgar Kennedy slow burn as a hitman).

I suppose that makes Kingpin the Farrellys’ homage to The Honeymooners. God knows, Woody Harrelson wears enough padding as the one-handed, burnt-out bowling champ Roy Munson to beef himself up almost to Kramdenesque proportions, and Randy Quaid has a lock on Norton’s fatuous grin as Roy’s discovery, an Amish tenpins whiz named Ishmael Boorg. But if Kingpin shows the brothers moving beyond the playground for inspiration (and only partly; there’s a gag involving bull semen I can’t go into here), the movie stiffed for a reason: It’s sour as hell. Harrelson bites into his role with his usual actorly gusto, and the result is that Roy really is a sleazeball. You certainly don’t buy his growing romance with a hubba-hubba bowling groupie (Vanessa Angel, playing the same sort of fantasy babe as Holly in Dumb and — admit it — Diaz in Mary). More to the point, you don’t root for him. Not when Bill Murray is dancing around so dementedly as Roy’s nemesis.

There’s Something About Mary has many things in common with Kingpin: The hero wears a hideous shag haircut in an early scene, there’s a score by an overlooked folk-rock troubadour (Freedy Johnston in Kingpin, Jonathan Richman in Mary), and actress Lin Shaye allows herself to be made really, really disgusting. But this time, the Farrellys (working with cowriters Ed Decter and John J. Strauss) have it figured out: They make the hero a nice guy and his rival a scuzzbucket. That simple decision frees Matt Dillon to be magnificently venal as private dick Pat (”I work with retards”) Healy and Ben Stiller to be schlumpfily noble as Ted Stroehmann. And even if the beloved Mary is as unreal as the women in Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin, the Farrellys are clearly playing her perfection as a goof this time (she’s gorgeous! she’s a surgeon! she can hit the green in one!). In fact, the simple addition of a home life for their leading lady — and Diaz’s blithe, easy charm within that life — makes a world of difference.

None of this, of course, was what people talked about when they staggered out of theaters last summer. They talked about cans of whup-ass and rest stops and hair gel and unfortunate lapdogs. But do you really think There’s Something About Mary would have been an across-the-board hit (I know grandparents who loved the movie) without the Farrellys’ nudging their grotty vision of the world just enough in the direction of real life? Just don’t call it maturity — that’d spoil everything.

There’s Something About Mary: A-
Dumb and Dumber: C+
Kingpin: C